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Review: Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann

Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman

Galley Beggar Press, £14.99

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Over the last four weeks, for two hours a day, I have read Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport. When I showed the book to a friend, he said it looked like it could take four weeks off my life, too. Well, it almost did. The tome comes in at just under 1,000 pages. Most of it consists of a single sentence, punctuated with commas and the phrase “the fact that…” No paragraphs, just dense blocks of text. Here’s an extract from half way through:

“…the fact that Mommy passed on when I was in my thirties, twelve years ago now, the fact that she left me, the fact that I can’t bear to even think about all her health problems, the fact that it’s best not to think about it, best to block it out like most other things…all I do is go around in circles trying not think about my mom, 6 Kinds of Dizziness…the fact that moms are at the centre of everything of course, motherland, mother nature, mother tongue, Mother Goose, mother vinegar, Mommy, mama, so should my mum be any different, belly buttons…”

You see, it’s not that bad. Does the endless repetition of “the fact that” get tedious? No. It becomes another grammar mark, which is perhaps the point. When something is stated as fact ad infinitum it takes on the lustre of objectivity. That’s how propaganda – what nowadays is called “fake news” – works. It is telling that the novel is published on the fourth of July, Independence Day. Sometimes, it reads like an indictment of modern America and some of its more iniquitous foundations, like the massacre of Native Americans and the appropriation of their land. So, it is a stream of consciousness novel, but also a stream of conscience novel.

The narrator is a middle-aged woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She has four children, used to teach local history, but now bakes pies for a living. She is married to a man called Leo, who is a structural engineer with a speciality in bridge-design. The novel is a veritable flood of information and emotion that washes through her mind over the course of a few weeks.

Like the Ohio River, the novel just keeps flowing, and we get the debris: lists of shopping and place names, news of environmental degradation, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Hollywood film plots and film stars, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, “open carry” gun culture, Obamacare, the narrator’s children, her husband, her ex-husband, her chickens, her pies, her dead mother, her gun-toting neighbour Ronny who wears a Make America Great Again hat, and everything in between.

This torrent is only interrupted when we are given a few descriptive third person passages that follow a cougar and her cubs through the wilderness. In this way, the frantic mess of the human world lies in counterpoint to the zen quality of the natural world. What the cougar and the mother share is the daily struggle for survival and the instinct to protect their children from the madness of the world. The title refers to the narrator’s own mother, who at the age of five ran into a pond shouting ‘Ducky! Ducky!’ Interestingly, it’s her mother’s sister who saves her, not a cautious parent.

Who is this woman and why are we in her head for so long? She could be all mothers everywhere and mother earth combined. But whoever she is, she is one of the most intriguing, charming and genuinely funny characters I have come across in recent years. And, somehow, out of all the detritus flowing through her mind, there emerges a whole life, with its own distinctive American voice, full of wit, intelligence and an array of emotions.

In the novel’s latter pages, various strands – tributaries – start to conjoin, and, bizarrely, some of the events – involving the mountain lion, Ronny the gunman, and the narrator’s daughter, Stacey – coalesce in a denouement that contains some gripping and absurd drama. Still, even now, in recovery, I can’t say for certain what this novel’s all about. Moreover, I can’t say if it’s a masterpiece or a terrible splurge of fearful polemic and word association. But, to hell with it, I certainly enjoyed the ride.

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